FORT BELKNAP, Mont. - Faced with geographic isolation and persistent poverty among his people, Ben Speakthunder knows his highest priority must be creating new economic opportunity on the sprawling Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.
Speakthunder is currently serving his second, four-year term as chairman of the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes. No stranger to intra-tribal challenges and controversies, he previously served as vice chairman for two full terms.
"We need to work with each other, instead of working against each other," the 42-year-old leader said. "The barriers need to be knocked down. That's something that's going to help us succeed."
Under Speakthunder's tenure the tribes finished negotiating a landmark water compact with the state and have attempted to come to terms with state officials on a Class III gaming agreement, as well. Tribal leaders are hoping federal damage claims tied into the water compact can be used to spur a variety of economic development projects, including an ethanol production plant if it's deemed to be feasible. The tribes also recently opened an off-reservation packing plant with an eye toward becoming a bigger player in the growing buffalo-meat trade.
Speakthunder said the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes would like to expand gaming opportunities, but he complained that the state persists in using a "cookie-cutter approach" when dealing with the issue. He said he's frustrated with Republican Gov. Judy Martz and other state leaders for not taking tribal sovereignty seriously in recent gaming talks and for the state's unwillingness to enter into a compact that could provide them with meaningful income.
"What they really need to do is open up their minds," he said.
But, he added, gaming will never be an economic panacea for most large, land-based tribes, because many of the big reservations, including Fort Belknap, are located far from major population centers. Gambling, he explained, is only "one spoke in the wheel." Other economic development targets include expanding tourism, providing more help for tribal entrepreneurs and developing more outlets for the area's predominant agricultural sector.
Speakthunder, who holds a degree in Natural Resources Management from Fort Belknap College, is also a long-time proponent of education, especially through tribally controlled schools. An enrolled Assiniboine, he grew up on the reservation and worked for years as a smokejumper with the U.S. Forest Service, which enabled him to travel all over Alaska and the West.
Speakthunder is an active member of the Montana-Wyoming Tribal Leaders Council and a vocal critic of Congress and the Bush administration for their ongoing refusal to fully honor tribal treaty rights.
"We're spending billions on war in Iraq and Afghanistan while the domestic needs are largely being ignored, especially in Indian country," he added. "There's a lot of elimination of programs and services already, and it's probably going to get a lot worse."
Another major issue for the Fort Belknap Tribes is the nearby Zortman-Landusky mine complex. Speakthunder and other tribal leaders are involved in a variety of lawsuits against state and federal officials over inadequate pollution controls and insufficient bonding at the site, which was supposed to be returned to the tribes as reservation land after gold mining ceased.
"But that never happened," Speakthunder said. Instead, open-pit excavations were repeatedly allowed to expand, even when there was insufficient bonding posted to cover clean-up costs. Now state and federal taxpayers are saddled with much of the reclamation bill, and the tribes charge that mining wastes continue to pollute reservation water.
"Not only were mountains torn down and watersheds diverted, but a lot of religious sites and ecosystems were destroyed," he said. "A lot of wells and creeks have been dried up on the reservation. In return, we got a lot of tailings and mineral wastes that contaminated the surface water and the groundwater. We still have not received our land back, either."
As part of an effort to increase self-sufficiency, the Assiniboine and Gros Ventre tribes in recent years have compacted a variety of BIA programs, including the roads, forestry and realty divisions, but not without controversy. The BIA claims the tribes went out of compliance with two of the programs, but Speakthunder said problems with forestry services have been remedied, and agency allegations over realty management are being appealed administratively.
The tribal moves to run federal programs have stirred considerable internal dissent, and an opposition group, the Fort Belknap Coalition, was organized by elders and others in 2002 to fight the changes. One of the group's primary leaders, Selena Ditmar, was recently elected to the tribal council with the promise to get more membership guidance before compacting decisions are made.
"I don't think everything should be compacted or contracted, but we should work toward that direction," Speakthunder said. "But we've got to move ahead with self-governance everywhere we can. I'm a strong believer in and am committed to self-governance. I feel like as a tribe we need to move ahead and progress. We've got to move forward."
According to Speakthunder, the tribes are now considering whether to apply for an empowerment-zone designation from the U.S. Department of Commerce. That could open a lot of opportunities for economic growth, he said, but tribal leaders also realize that progress typically comes only small steps at a time.
With security concerns increased in Washington, D.C. since the 2001 terrorist attacks, the tribes are also looking to provide potential relocation sites for some federal operations that are now clustered in potentially vulnerable urban areas. Such action could provide jobs for tribal members, as well as add to the reservation's overall economy.
"We've got to do something here in Indian country to help ourselves," he explained. "We're always saying we're a sovereign nation, but to express that sovereignty tribes need to express that self-governance. Self-governance is nothing new. It's been approved by Congress since 1973. But we've got to stand up and take action, because no one's going to do it for us."
For a variety of reasons, Fort Belknap's population is already increasing at a rapid rate, but many new reservation residents find it extremely hard to make a living and find a suitable place to live.
"People want to come home nowadays," Speakthunder said. "People want to get back to their cultures and traditions. But we need to attract more agencies, more businesses to look at Indian country and our resources. Indian country probably has the most underdeveloped resources in the United States in terms of mineral rights, recreation and so forth. We also have high unemployment rates. I'm not going to deny that. But that also means we have another resource, and we have to get our people to work."